Response to PZ Myers on Science and Philosophy

A link to my first comment (also pasted below):

You’ll have to refer to the link above if you want to see the other comments I am responding to below, though I do repeat them in brief in my own responses.

# 168:

I’ve read the entire thread and wanted to toss a few thoughts into the mix for whatever they are worth. In light of Darwin’s own admission that variation under natural selection was by no means a complete account of speciation*, I think Fodor’s criticisms would be better directed at neo-Darwinists like Dennett and Dawkins, whose absolutist attitude seems to distort via over-extension Darwin’s more modest proposal. Fodor seems to want us to consider the role of endogenous organization in the evolutionary drama, instead of assuming that all form is imposed from without by the environment. Not only evo-devo, but complexity theory have gone a long way in providing insight into the role played by endogenous organization. It seems that most biologists are well aware of the gaps that need filling, and Fodor doesn’t give them enough credit. I would like to defend his apparently “consequentialist” reasoning, however. Evolutionary psychology (especially Pinker) is filled with ad hoc explanations that really cannot be separated from political ideology. Hume’s too easy “is” v. “ought” dichotomy may hold for physics (though even there, it is apparent that research into nuclear weapons technology blurs the boundary), but in biology and especially psychology, when science begins to study the very life processes that generate our own cognitive capacities, core philosophical issues quickly rise to the surface. The knowing scientist, after all, is a part of the universe he or she is trying to understand. Moral considerations cannot be treated as if they exist outside the facts of nature. Morality IS a fact of (human) nature. All too often, those with a scientistic bent treat such philosophical considerations as if they were irrelevant: now that the scientific method has been formulated, they believe all that is left for us to do is fit our theories to the data**. The consequences of over-zealous reduction of evolution to a Darwinian algorithm (a la Dennett), when unreflectively applied as a “universal acid” to other fields like psychology–while certainly generating lucrative research grants–cannot be ignored unless we mean to uphold the sort of Cartesian dualism between the human soul and the rest of the natural world that Hume assumed to construct his “is”/”ought” dichotomy. The way humanity thinks of nature (whether scientifically or philosophically) is not at all separate from the sorts of social forms and ecological policies we adopt.

In closing, as a final defense of the importance of philosophy even in our technophilic and scientistic age, I’d like to recommend a book by Evan Thompson (Univ. of Toronto): “Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Science of Mind.” He has plenty of criticisms of Fodor’s approach to cognitive science, as well as Dennett and Dawkins approach to biology. Most relevant to what has been discussed on this thread is chapter 7 (starting on page 166). Most of it is on google books and can be read here:

Thompson argues that Darwin’s mechanism assumes without explaining the self-production of biological individuals (which is logically prior to reproduction). Self-production (or “autopoiesis”) cannot be accounted for in Darwinian terms, and may require re-thinking the mechanistic ontology of nature that has gained ascendency since the Scientific Revolution. I’ve written a lengthy essay about this which also attempts to break down the “is”/”ought” dichotomy by showing how the modern conception of the biosphere in terms of competition and mechanism has more to do with capitalist social relations than it does with empirical facts.

The essay:

*Darwin spoke of “evolution” only once in the 6th edition of “Origin.” The concept arose in Romantic philosophy long before Darwin. Lamarck (even if his proposed mechanism turned out to be misguided) was really the one who first made the idea plausible as an account of phylogenic change. Darwin wanted to avoid it because he wanted his theory to be strictly empirical, mechanistic, and therefore non-directional. Evolution implies the unrolling of something enveloped, and is therefore somewhat teleological. Romantic philosophers (Kant, Goethe, Coleridge, etc.) employed the concept to counter the mechanistic forms of thought that gained prominence in the late 18th and early 19th century. A good anthology on this:

** Thomas Kuhn’s working out of the underlying perceptual re-orientations responsible for paradigm shifts should clue us into the fact that what makes science so successful is the plasticity of its method. Data and evidence are not the only relevant factors in scientific investigation. Facts are underdetermined by theories.


# 169:

Also, I’d be curious to here what Pharyngulites think of this other NS article on horizontal gene transfer. It seems to me to present a much stronger case than anything Fodor has to say for the eclipse of Darwin’s mechanism as the most important factor in evolution:

# 176:
Nerd of Redhead,

Sorry, not the peer reviewed scientific literature, which is the only thing that counts to science.

Let us hope that science never ceases to deeply engage with the philosophical underpinnings of its method. Once it severs its ties to philosophy, there is nothing to prevent it from becoming another unreflective form of dogmatism. Do not forget that the epistemological basis and ontological conclusions (if there be any) of scientific investigation are not themselves amenable to empirical investigation.

Scientific journals are where the nitty-gritty experimental work is hashed out, no doubt. But we will always need philosophy to put all the pieces together into some coherent picture of the universe and our place in it. This is especially true in light of the proliferation of scientific fields and the fragmentation of knowledge which has resulted.


# 209:

I have to make a confession. I don’t do any of my thinking inside a laboratory–unless, that is, you are willing to grant me a metaphorical use of the term. Perhaps systematically thinking about thinking, and about thinking’s relation to our bodies, to other thinking bodies, and to the world, is a sort of scientific investigation. Except in my case, the laboratory is the Universe.

The relationship between science and philosophy has and will inevitably remain an intimate one. I will quote Alfred North Whitehead below because he seems uniquely positioned to provide insight into the turf war that always plays itself out here on Pharyngula. He lived through the quantum and relativistic revolutions as a physicist and came to realize their implications would require totally re-imagining the philosophical foundation of Classical physics. The classical relationships between space-time, energy/matter, and observation/consciousness that Galileo and Newton had assumed to be true could no longer serve as the metaphysical background of the scientific worldview. The results of scientific investigation, in this case, lead Whitehead deeper into philosophy.

From “Adventures of Ideas” (1933), chapter 9: ‘Science and Philosophy’, p. 143:

The emphasis of science is upon observation of particular occurrences, and upon inductive generalization, issuing in wide classifications of things according to their modes of functioning, in other words according to the laws of nature which they illustrate. The emphasis of philosophy is upon generalizations which almost fail to classify by reason of their universal application. For example, all things are involved in the creative advance of the Universe, that is, in the general temporality which affects all things…

Philosophy is concerned with the most universal aspects of human experience. Science is after the details. In the end, though, science must assume the imaginative background that the great philosophers have intuited and systematized (it is usually not the same philosopher to do both). There have not been many great philosophers, as has been pointed out several times on this thread already. Perhaps all of Western philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead suggested. But when a particular field of science tries to trace back its ideas to their basic notions, it eventually reaches a point where further pursuit of their source is no longer relevant to its immediate purposes. They must hand the baton of knowledge to the philosophers. As Whitehead says, These basic notions [of science] are specializations from the philosophical intuitions which form the background of the civilized thought of the epoch in question… The collapse of nineteenth century [Classical] dogmatism is a warning that the special sciences require that the imaginations of men [and women] be stored with imaginative possibilities as yet unuitilized in the service of scientific explanation.

Philosophy provides this great service to human ideas, that it keeps them fresh and free to re-imagine the world when, as a result of ongoing experimentation in the laboratory of the Universe, old world-conceptions fail the tests of empirical adequacy and logical coherence.

To recap, philosophy is concerned with the universal aspects of experience, some examples of which are space, time, and consciousness. Physicists cannot measure or observe any of these three, because they are universal forms of intuition and not particular sensory objects. Space, time, and consciousness are pre-conditions for special scientific investigation into this or that corner of the natural world. We can only approach these categories philosophically.

None of this is to say that philosophy somehow provides us access to the ultimate truth. Knowledge is an evolving process, and I’d offer that balanced constructive competitiveness between scientific and philosophic attitudes will best allow our civilization to continue its historic adventure.


# 212:


Perhaps we can agree then that evolution is indeed more complicated than we currently understand, and that while vertical transfer of variation under natural selection may be the norm for higher taxa, evolutionarily prior to that (i.e., for roughly 3 billion years) the rules were very different. Evolution itself seems to have evolved.

To all,

It seems like Pharyngula is more concerned with the cultural implications of our biological origins than with the specific details of evolutionary theory (though of course I’ve read some fantastic scientific blogs by PZ here, too). While I agree that the fact of the common descent of species MUST be integrated into our self-conception as human beings, I tend to think that the materialism taken for granted here is just as misguided an understanding of the complexity of our universe as intelligent design. Neither takes seriously the implications of a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy. Yes, complexity emerges from simplicity over time without the need of an external designer. But when put in a cosmological context, the mechanistic assumptions of both materialism and intelligent design fail to adequately account for our current experience as self-conscious animals. Traditional religion is indeed dead, and has no better explanation for our existence;, but dead, too, is the clock-work conception of the universe that initiated the Scientific Revolution and inspired Darwin’s attempt to find a mechanistic law working to produce living phenomena. I’m not suggesting his theory is incorrect; it is demonstrably true. But its truth is conditional, not universal.

Perhaps we might take a step back and consider for a moment the larger arc of the history of ideas. It seems to me, from such a view, that we should remain ever-vigilant for the sort of hubris which leads us to suppose our age is the first to see clearly, whereas all prior ages were living in the dark. Humanity has deepened its understanding in light of modern science, but that doesn’t mean there is no longer any room for imaginative speculation and appreciation for the mystery of the sheer fact that such a beautifully ordered universe should exist at all. Pre-modern answers to spiritual questions no longer inspire us–and so we must go in search of our own. But search we must. Scientific certainty about this or that particular fact will never be enough to keep the human spirit alive.


# 216:


I fail to see how this universe is beautifully ordered, wouldn’t thermodynamic equilibrium actually mean the universe was dead ?

Define those terms [Truth and Goodness], otherwise this is just the mother of all ambiguous statements.

The expansionary model of the universe, as well as the seeming infinite potential of the quantum vacuum, calls into question the idea that it is all destined for heat death.

I hold, as Plato did, that Truth and Goodness cannot be finally defined, but only approached through ongoing dialectical struggle. That they exist as ideal forms is an assumption I seem unable to avoid. But that I might once and for all define them for you in abstraction from the concrete actuality of the always new particular situations in which they are to be applied is hardly possible. It is a bit like what Augustine said about time, that he knew what it was (the very essence of the life of his soul!) only until he was asked to define it. All but the most poetic language fails us in these situations, but unless we buy into the relativism of our intellectually impotent age, we cannot avoid the conclusion that we have at least intuitive access to these ideals.


# 219:

John Morales,

You use the terms, yet you claim they’re ineffable. Do you see the oddity in this?

Not at all. Language allows us to approach intelligibility, but not to arrive at it in the form of fixed definitions. Inquire seriously into the meaning of most words and you’ll find you eventually reach an aporia. The ground of language is speech, which at its root is a matter of communication between persons. When we talk about Truth and Goodness, we are attempting to share attentional ‘space’ about ideas which do not in fact exist anywhere in our sensory experience of the physical world, but rather come to us as spiritual intuitions. I use the loaded word “spiritual” because our own self-conscious capacity to think (i.e., our spirit, or “I”) doesn’t appear to exist anywhere in the spatially extended world of material objects. Rather, it is that which is able to conceive of the world as a spatiotemporal manifold in the first place. Space and time, like Truth and Goodness, are ideas. You’ve never literally seen space. You’ve only seen shades of color. Nor have you seen time, only motion. You intuit space-time and can never be quite sure what it might be independent of your intuitions. Said otherwise, you can never be quite sure what the words “space” and “time” actually refer to; though of course this doesn’t mean we can’t have meaningful conversations about them so long as we are willing to take the imaginative leap necessary give them content.


# 222:

I don’t mean to create some dualism between the mind and the extended world of nature here (a la Descartes). The challenging thing about a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is that it requires we articulate how it is possible for mental experience and material process to share a common origin. The universe doesn’t do what it does because of some extra élan vital; rather, the expansion of space-time and organization of matter/energy constituting our ongoing cosmogenesis was from the beginning in possession of interiority or mind. To speak of “matter” (or exteriority) as if it might exist in abstraction from “mind” (or interiority) is to employ a form of substance dualism. Unless our concepts of both mind and matter have a necessary relation to one another such that the one requires the other for its meaning, they sink into incoherence. We cannot conceive of them as separate substances requiring nothing but themselves in order to exist, even if, like many here at Pharyngula, we chose to ignore mind in favor of explanation by way of material substance alone.

All this is to say that while thinking, ideas, and intuitions cannot be outwardly sensed or weighed, they remain integral to the universe. They are not immediately evident anywhere “out there,” perhaps, but they nonetheless require and participate in the becoming of the world. Only by becoming real does the ideal complete its mission.

Language is itself a feature of the outside world, and so it cannot entirely contain the inwardly experienced meaning of our ideas–certainly not as abstract definitions. But we seem nonetheless able to change the world with our words, because by speaking with each other we give rise to shared networks significance, to entire civilizations.



Agreeing on use of terms is important, but it is only because we can never quite agree that culture evolves by continually realizing new forms of language that give insight into our relationship to the physical world. We can only know the world, whether through judgement or otherwise, because of our relations to other people. I can conceive of perspectival space, for instance, only after taking into consideration the fact that others see the world from a different angle than myself. Truth and Goodness are not entities in the way that the apple I hold in my hand is an entity. They are ideal forms. As soon as I speak and give them a name, they become mere abstractions unless in some concrete encounter between myself and other people an immediate intuition is shared concerning their participation in our given situation. These ideas could be thought of as strange attractors guiding our complex interactions with one another in the world.

As for an account of self-consciousness as epiphenomenal to the brain, I refer you to my reasoning (#222) concerning the incoherence of any definition of matter in abstraction from mind. Yes, we are both material objects; but so are we spiritual subjects. Otherwise we would not be capable of the sort of knowledge science claims we have of the spatiotemporal world.

Human beings are not the only creatures with an interior perspective on the world, and so if we went extinct, space-time would still be realized by other beings.

I don’t think it is so easy to distinguish between perception and intuition. We always already perceive the world in terms of the concepts of space and time. These are the very conditions for the possibility of experience in the first place. We do experience a real world, certainly. But the constitution of this world includes both a mental and a material pole and can’t be reduced to one or the other.

This all sounds awfully Kantian, and I think his approach fails in the end to overcome Descartes dualism, but so far as it goes I think he successfully destroyed any hope for a materialistic account of thinking and self-consciousness.


# 227:


It’s not so much that there is something “beyond” the material. It’s that within matter itself there lies the capacity to think, to be aware, to know. This has implications so far as our general conception of the universe is concerned, the sort of implications that force us to wonder if perhaps the modern scientific notion of a dead, mechanistic universe–rather than the pre-modern one of an organic, living universe–is the mistaken projection. Science has corrected much that was wrong with ancient cosmology and totally reoriented us in the universe based on empirical observation, no doubt about that! But the total sterilization of the universe by reduction to exterior matter in motion according to deterministic law has turned out to be a bit premature. Such a picture leaves the human observer entirely out of the picture. Since relativity and quantum theories over-turned the Classical conception of the physical world, such an oversight is no longer excusable even within science, much less philosophy. We are in need of a metaphysical scheme that ties mind and matter together into a single evolutionary process. There’s no doubt they are intimately wed. But it is a huge leap to the assumption that we can hope to account for our very ability to give an account of anything (Plato referred to this ability as our participation in Logos, which could be translated as mind) in terms of external brain mechanisms alone. To do so is to ignore the significance of our own thinking activity.


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